The Caribbean has been challenged to slash its annual US$4 billion food import bill by at least a quarter over the next five years by Prime Minister Mottley.
Stating that the region was at war against both natural disasters and lifestyle diseases, the recently elected premier painted a sobering picture of despair should the region not be able to ensure food security in a time of emergency.
Mottley, who was addressing the opening of the Caribbean Week of Agriculture (CWA) 2018 at the Lloyd Erskine Sandiford Centre on Wednesday evening, urged participants not to just have another talk shop, but to take the necessary steps to ensure food sustainability in the region.
Noting that the Caribbean was vulnerable to the shocks of natural disasters, Mottley appeared to suggest the region lacked a plan to maintain food security should the Miami-Caribbean food supply chain be broken by hurricane.
“It matters not that you can say food could come seven days, ten days or 12 days from elsewhere because you have a national security crisis in the first four or five days if supplies are cut off,” she declared.
“What we face today is not a traditional war in the sense of World War II, but we face a war against our environment and we face a war among our population with respect to investment that we continue to make in our people, but with the decimation of too many of them from chronic non-communicable diseases,” she said.
The Prime Minister said she refused to accept that it was beyond the capacity of regional economies to reduce the regional food import bill by at least 25 per cent over the next five years.
“We cannot be serious about protecting our interest if we do not set ourselves that simple target. I have not said to reduce it by 50 per cent, I have not said that as much as I would like to see that, but it must be within our capacity to make a habit of success, and a habit of success means reduction and not increase of that bill,” said Mottley.
She did not outline what policies her five-month-old administration had taken or planned to introduce to drive down her nation’s own $500 million-plus food import bill.
While saluting development partners for “walking the road” with Caribbean economies over the years, Mottley said the region’s relationship with agriculture could no longer be based on a “plantation model”.
“It has to change by first and foremost being able to attract technological solutions and innovation. In a land scarce country such as Barbados our future in agriculture must be based on a vertical yield,” she said.
Mottley also pointed out that the time had come for the region’s “best and brightest” to pursue agriculture, while crying shame on what she called the “independence generation” for not replicating what was considered one of the most successful periods for sugar production in the region several years ago.
Turning to the fishing industry, Mottley suggested that the region needed a cohesive plan to “treat to the protection and conservation” of coral reefs and other marine resources.
Insisting that the time for talk was over as it relates to agriculture in the region, Mottley said given the advancement in technology and level of liquidity in the banking system it should be easier for the Caribbean to produce more to feed itself.
“In [Barbados] our liquidity, our savings is at about US$4.5 billion, but the instruments available and the opportunity for investment regionally for agriculture are limited. Against that background therefore, I welcome the renewed emphasis for cross border investment,” said Mottley, adding that “it cannot remain on a platform or in a letter, they have to be given life, and to be given life it means that the integration of production within the context of the CARICOM Single Market and Economy is absolutely critical”.
It would also require affordable regional transportation and greater accountability on the path of all stakeholders, said the Prime Minister.
She said efforts would also require the World Trade Organization and other international entities recognizing “the reality of island life in particular as it relates to allowing small island developing states to protect local farmers to ensure food security in the event of climatic events.
“To that extent there needs to be research with respect to international trade policy to allow us to be able to use food security as one of the primary weapons of defence for the protection of our agricultural sector,” said Mottley.
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that Caribbean countries import US$4 billion in food annually – 50 per cent more than what it imported in 2000.